Saturday, October 21, 2006

About Time

There is a cosy consensus in the UK that our state broadcaster (funded by a regressive tax on all television owners) is utterly, unimpeachibly, unbiased.

This is, of course, nonsense but it's often hard to prove.

The guys at Biased BBC do a good job of highlighting the "stealth edits" of BBC News online articles, the degree to which interviewers on "Today" give interviewees a hard time and much more.

However, a potentially even more interesting new service has just started up: "News Sniffer" does a couple of things but one of the most important is spotting all the times that the BBC edit an article on their website without changing the "last updated" timestamp.

From a quick glance, most of the edits are minor corrections and clarifications but the service will come into its own when a contentious issue is in the news.

4 comments:

Andrew Ferrier said...

Thanks for bringing up this subject, Richard - News Sniffer looks like a good tool. Possibly the most interesting part is the 'Censored Comments' section, rather than the edits made to the articles themselves (which I suspect, as you say, are mostly mundane).

However, what I also find to be a problem with the BBC is the implicit and subtle bias in (particularly news) reporting in the first place. You rarely see liberal free-market viewpoints, such as I think you and I share, discussed in any great detail.

For example, Newsnight has been running a series recently with its 'ethical' man living in an 'ethical' way. He recently did a spot on carbon offsetting. At no point was the logic behind carbon offsetting discussed - even though, for example, Tim Harford explained at length in The Undercover Economist, a recent and prominent book, why he believed it doesn't work (I agree with his reasoning). In fact, free advertising was given to a carbon offsetting startup based in the UK, with no tough questions asked.

Of course, the BBC does all this because it has to cater to a majority audience - partly because that's in its remit, but also because its monetary support comes ultimately from voters (i.e. government won't support it if people don't watch it). With any luck, the long tail will begin to force it out of business as it becomes hard for it to cater to diverse interests. But that might take a while.

You might also find Seth Godin's discussion of Fox News's marketing strategy in 'All Marketers are Liars' interesting.

Richard Brown said...

Thanks for the interesting comment, Andrew.

I have to take issue with one thing though:

Of course, the BBC does all this because it has to cater to a majority audience - partly because that's in its remit, but also because its monetary support comes ultimately from voters (i.e. government won't support it if people don't watch it).

I'm not sure that's the reason; it would imply a conscious decision to take a particular line. My suspicion is that they really do believe they are neutral. I guess it's what happens when you surround yourself with a lot of people who all think the same... you quickly begin to think you're the mainstream.

Andrew Ferrier said...

Well, I'm not so sure it's conscious for all BBC employees, sure - but I'm sure the board of directors and programme schedulers have what's publically acceptable at the back of their minds when making the big picture decisions.

I'm sure there's a certain amount of groupthink going on as well, agreed.

Richard Brown said...

You're probably right.... perhaps I've been reading biased-bbc too much :-)